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Poetry: North End Poems Reviewed

Posted by art On July - 20 - 2009

north endThe North End Poems by Michael Knox
ECW Press, 2009

Reviewed by Carolyn Tripp

North End Poems
by Michael Knox follows a Golden-Horseshoe, blue-collar type in the throes of an arduous lifestyle. The main character of this poetic series, Nick Macfarlane, is accustomed to rough days and rougher nights courtesy of bars, buddies, and the tough broads bred in a harsh, working-class town.

A Hamilton native and astute observer, Knox seems to have his characters down to a tee; the coked-up bartenders, the girl-hungry factory workers, and the barroom brawls are all described in frank language, retaining veracity to the lives he portrays.

But there’s something amiss every time I turn a page in what might otherwise be described as an enthralling slice of a surprisingly abrasive Ontarian middle-class existence. Read the rest of this entry »

Poetry: Living Things Reviewed

Posted by art On June - 9 - 2009

living-thingsLiving Things by Matt Rader
Nightwood Editions, 2008

Reviewed by Mike Sloane

Matt Rader’s Living Things is an astounding, thought-provoking, and visceral collection of poetry; his sophomore publication is the furthest thing from being a slump.

While Living Things ostensibly presents the reader with a slew of diverse, eclectic poems that include such choice titles as “Chainsaw,” “Domestic Work,” “Easter,” “Twilight of the Automobile,” “Common Carrier,” “Fastest Man on the Planet,” “Aeons,” “Mustang,” “Alligators,” and “Reading with Neela,” Rader’s gambit of verse is quite coherent, unified. Without being too reductive, I would suggest that Rader’s “Deer” introduces a leitmotif that pervades the collection:

…you own hunger
to encounter the edge of another
dimension and be stopped in your tracks,
caught staring at a creature who materialized
before your very eyes and now stares back.

It is here, then, that Rader underscores, at a very basic level, the significance of being aware, being conscious of alternative forms of existence. More specifically, it is his emphasis on the process of confronting, connecting, and integrating the notion of another “dimension” beyond simple desire that constitutes his modus operandi; this is evident in the reciprocal gaze between the subject and the deer, an obtuse mirror-stage of sorts. Living Things, then, strongly adheres to representing and implicitly privileging non-linguistic animate — or inanimate — things by providing them with a voice. This particular process, especially in the case of inanimate things, involves evoking a palpable sense of liveliness, which generally takes the form of personification; this is evident in “Common Carrier”:

I go backward. I go where the tracks go
and I go slow. I’m old but not as old as
as coal or steam or hydro. When it’s cold,
the switching yard crystalled in snow,

I still tow the fields of harvest wheat
from prairie to coast, the vast ocean
of ethanol a slosh in my middle hold.

Rader appears to be advocating a paradigm shift in order to reevaluate, or even restructure, the way in which we view the world and the living things therein. This process is especially accentuated in relation to Rader’s acute evocation of mortality; his stark juxtaposition between life and death throughout Living Things further foregrounds the importance of honing in on those living things that typically occupy marginal or peripheral spaces. For instance, in “Emergency Broadcast System,” there’s a blatant apocalyptic overtone that forces the reader to, at the very least, consider their own ontology, let alone other “dimensions”:

I’m always quick
to think, This is it, the one we’ve all been
waiting for, the news we knew to imagine
but could not imagine nonetheless, the end
of life as we live it, careless in this land,

and when you let go of my hand and stand,
balanced by your own mass and muscle,
a fresh knack  for gravity at your command,

begin to look around, wonder, slyly smile,
then, one foot in front of the other, totter
forward into the future

After having read the collection and slipped into some existential moments myself, I cannot help but recall the volta, or the turning point, that consolidated my appreciation for Rader’s poesy. So, to avoid coming across as too self-absorbed, I will err on the side of caution and brevity — well, maybe not brevity — and save you my Sterne-isms and simply sign off with an anecdote explaining how I came to appreciate, in a twisted epiphanic sort of way, the profundity and richness of Rader’s poetry.

Sitting on a bench by Lake Ontario, I overheard an elderly m—

Damn! This is already sounding egocentric and over-wrought.

Sitting on a bench by Lake Ontario, I overheard an elderly man ask a passerby walking his dog if the dog’s n—

We don’t care about your anecdote.
Damn! I am digressively shaking it up Shandy-style.

Sitting on a bench by Lake Ontario, I overheard an elderly man ask a passerby walking his dog if the dog’s name was “Phantom” (i.e., the dog had a black-and-white pattern on its face resembling the Phantom of the Opera’s mask), to which the jittery dog-owner stopped, turned around and yelped, “No. Not this one. This one isn’t ‘Phantom.’ No. No!” The dog-owner swiftly turned away and stormed off. Now, at the time of this rather schizophrenic, caustic incident, I was reading Rader’s “Mustang” and had just finished the last two stanzas — they read:

Wowee Zowee
Was still ten years out of reissue and our minds
Soaked in its weird from the stereo. No one knows

Just where we go when we go. Some folks diagnose
Jesus, Jello-O, scrap metal; give me a mercy of mind
Of the kind that Mustang gave my brothers and me.

A Pavement reference. I’m sold.

Sincerely though, Rader’s affectively charged, insouciant verse alongside my experience really underscored those moments, those snapshots that capture an energy amidst an unknowingness or an absurdity that, at the end of the day, reminds us of the spontaneity and fragility of life. Oprah, anyone?

Hidden Gem Review: William Gibson’s Virtual Light

Posted by art On January - 30 - 2009

virtual_light_uk_coverVirtual Light [Viking Press, 1994]
By William Gibson

By Rachel Kahn

I’m that reader who, upon starting a gripping novel, can hardly maintain a conversation in the real world on any topic but said book, until I’ve finished it. It’s the perfect hibernation activity, because I don’t hear the hail hitting the window, or notice that the pizza delivery man is an hour late due to the weather. That’s why winter is my catch-up season: I can put a dent in my reading list.

While in San Diego (I think I was at Ocean Beach?) last fall, I bought myself a fanned-out paperback of Virtual Light by William Gibson. [Aside: In a related unfortunate turn of events, I also bought All Tomorrow's Parties, and not having internet access to clarify for myself, and with neither book stating anything on the subject, read that one first, unaware that it was the third in the Bridge trilogy that Virtual Light begins, and, I have to say, the weakest link.]

Virtual Light tells the stories of Berry Rydell, ex-cop, and Chevette Washington, bike courier, when her petty theft of a pair of dark glasses and his sketchy new employers bring them to the centre of a power struggle over the future shape of San Francisco. The city, at this point in Gibson’s near future, is split in two by a collapsed Golden Gate Bridge; on the bridge is a vibrant, autonomous community of squatters, and that community becomes a character in its own right. If it’s starting to sound like a pulp paperback, that’s because it is. Gibson’s an expert at throwing together things that are awesome, badass, and thought-provoking. Though this book isn’t heavy on the thought-provoking, it’s there if you want it.

Virtual Light was an incredibly fun read, and I was completely immersed in the world of the bridge. The romanticism of a bike-courier-loft-nesting-bar-hopping lifestyle did a number on my brain. Even now, I find myself pondering what it would take to get my poor bike up and running for spring. (Let it be known I am a terrible biker.) I’m saddened by the fact that Gibson’s bridge is not a real place, and that San Francisco will never have anything like his pseudo-utopic shantytown, no matter how long I wait to visit.

Gibson’s books always impart upon me an incredible sense of place. Reading this novel shortly after riding the train from San Diego to Seattle gave me a wealth of personal images of California to flesh out Gibson’s evocative but concise descriptions. There’s a kind of pathos to California, a sense of loss or rubbed-off glamour that pervades most of the contemporary fiction I’ve read about it (thanks, Coupland); and Gibson uses it consciously to add a sheen of romance. It stayed with me in the form of visual vignettes: the road at night where Berry sees the holographic girl; the foggy ocean view from the top of Skinner’s place on the bridge; the dark, chaotic, glowing hotel room where Chevette steals the glasses; the crowded body mod shop where she meets Sammy Sal. And of course, the bridge. The bridge feels to me like an infusion of a non-North American manifestation of shantytowns and markets into the foggy, crowded, bohemian world that I imagine San Francisco to be.

Gibson does write a lot of throwaway villains, though — while I was happy to keep things mysterious for most of the book, the ending would have made more sense if I’d had a better understanding of the power structures of the upper-class bad guys: instead, like Berry and Chevette, I was mostly mystified at how it all worked out. Key figures that required more information: Chevette’s ex-boyfriend and the hacker crew; Warbaby’s secretive employers and their plans; and of course the glasses — their contents, their makers, anything.

The narrative format is one of the subtlest and smartest things Gibson does. He jumps from past to present, anecdote to flashback to dreamy memory, person to person to person’s point of view, without a single jarring transition. Gibson’s themes continue to cast technology as a misused tool of the upper class, and the lower class as a group of people with an almost instinctual ability to warp it to their needs when given the opportunity. But these themes work for and against him. On one hand, it is at once sensible and awesome to have an underground hacker secret society. On other hand, Berry’s understanding of the netherworld of techno-manipulators is pretty advanced for a character who has been unable to keep a job for the entire book.

In summary, this is a fun book. It’s a fairy tale, where the underdogs win out once again, through luck, a good eye for the right button to push, and, on the bridge, mob rule. It’s a sci-fi novel — there’s exciting technology and significant social change between reality and Gibson’s world, but the focus isn’t really on the toys as it is on the characters and their situations. It’s a damn fun read, is my point, and it’ll make you want to move to San Francisco and join the squatters.

The Night of the Gun, Reviewed

Posted by art On November - 7 - 2008

The Night of the Gun
By David Carr
Simon & Schuster, 2008

By Leo K. Moncel

On the night of the gun, author David Carr, then a full-time junkie, was fired from his reporting job. He met his friend Donald at a bar and the two promptly got shitfaced and thrown out. Donald blamed Carr for the ejection and Carr shoved him across the hood of his muscle car. Donald drove off, stranding Carr with 34 cents in his pocket. Carr marched across town to Donald’s and tried to bust the door in with his sneaker until Donald came to the door, levelled a gun at him, and ordered Carr to leave before he dialed the police. When Carr recalled this event to Donald, years later, Donald remembered most of it similarly, except for one crucial detail: Carr, he said, was the one who had held the gun.

Carr had no recollection of owning a gun, but confessed that, given the period in his life that this night occurred, it was very probable that Donald’s version of the story held more water. This concession forced Carr to accept that he was not a wholly reliable narrator even in his own life’s story. So, when writing a memoir of his years as a cocaine addict, junkie, and recovered addict, Carr decided that the best way to go about it was to learn his own story by investigating existing records and videotaping interviews of those who had known him. What Carr developed through that process is a memoir that is uniquely clear, self-conscious and absent of the self-indulgence that could strangle a story like his.

A self-described “Whiteboy” from the suburbs of Minneapolis, Carr was raised in an old-fashioned Irish family with an equally old-fashioned penchant for alcoholism. Says Carr, “I drank and drugged for the same reason that a four-year-old spins around past the point of dizziness: I liked feeling different.” In tight little mini-chapters, we’re walked through an episode chain of escalating recklessness. What begins as fast-paced antics, fist fights and pranks, grows darker as Carr transforms from a partier to an addict. Drug dependency rose alongside a career as a crime reporter. The perils of his double life are encapsulated when he misses interviewing a lieutenant because he is sitting in a cell on a narcotics charge exactly one floor below.

Another “night of the gun,” a rift between Carr’s mental tale of his life and reality confronts him when he interviews old bosses at his papers. Where Carr recalls himself sliding down professionally, bit by bit as his nightlife snorted up his career pursuits, in fact, his switch from a dependable employee with a bit of a wild reputation to someone totally unreliable, even unsafe, actually happened within the span of two months. Carr pinpoints his plunge to the moment he went from snorting coke to smoking crack.

Soon his girlfriend, herself now on crack, was pregnant. Poignantly, her water broke one day in April as Carr was handing her a crack pipe. Their two-pound twin girls came home with them as soon as they were medically able. A short period – he remembers two months – of unfit parenthood ensued, culminating with Carr leaving the infants in his car to score cocaine. At this point he hit the epiphany that he needed to put his daughters in more capable hands and go clean. But this too was another “night of the gun” – the night of the score, Carr distinctly remembers that the twins were bundled up in snowsuits. Files show he gave up the babies in November. The twins were born in April. Calling his buddies from the old days, they confirmed that Carr, his girlfriend and the twins lived in a house piled high with dirty laundry and heaps of cocaine, running out of diapers for nearly eight months.

Carr went to rehab and after that it was the story of a “fat ex-junkie dad” doing his best to raise his daughters alone while clawing his way back into the world of journalism after having burned every bridge in town. Carr is someone who has struggled long enough with addiction to have a huge amount of perspective and thus is neither self-loathing in the book’s first half, nor overly self-congratulatory about his recovery. As they say in his twelve-step programs, “it is what it is” and you take it “one day at a time.” Carr is willing to own up to the hurt he’s caused others but refuses to indulge in self-flagellation. But the book certainly doesn’t tip in the other direction and ask us for our pity when he’s down and out. He accepts the disease model of alcoholism and addiction but insists there is always choice.

While his accounts are based heavily on interviews with old friends and people in “the life,” the reader is guided by Carr’s voice. Carr’s vocabulary carries a history of expansion in colleges, newsrooms, and crack houses. He is a wisecracker with bone-dry humour that is often inappropriate but never cruel. Carr is intelligent and, in spite of his recovery, still kind of an asshole, but never dull. He is exactly the sort of person that you hate to like. The only time I got genuinely aggravated by Carr was when he wrote about his early days as a duo party-guy and reporter. Essentially his gist was, “Jeez, if I could piss away my talent and still get by on my talent, I must have had oodles of this stuff called talent.” It was the only note of genuine arrogance in a book otherwise centred, ultimately, on gratitude.

Carr’s relationship with his twin daughters was at the core of his recovery. He’ll spend his life making up for his negligence, but this book seems to be one part of that ongoing commitment – correcting his own nights of the gun to get a better picture of the past, and the scars that remain.

One-Two Punch: An Interview with Stuart Ross

Posted by art On August - 8 - 2008
Stuart Ross and editor Jason Camlot. Photo by Paul Vermeersch.

Stuart Ross and editor Jason Camlot. Photo by Paul Vermeersch.

By Evie Christie

This past month Stuart Ross, small press hero and surrealist extraordinaire, has been short-listed for the Relit Award and featured in the New York Times blog for his column in the magazine sub-TERRAIN, from which Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer was drawn. I talked to Stuart recently via e-mail about his sixth full-length poetry collection, Dead Cars in Managua (DC Books, 2008), and other stuff!

MONDO: DC Books and the now have a reputation for unusual and brilliant work. They use gorgeous paper and make books that are lovely to look at. Aside from all this stuff, why did you decide to publish this collection with them? Stuart, I know that these poems are linked to the italicized poems in I Cut My Finger (Anvil, 2007). Beyond that, where did these poems originate?

Stuart Ross: OK, you’re on to me, Evie. Let me talk first about those italicized poems in I Cut My Finger. It was the first time I’d published poems like those, poems that didn’t have a clear narrative of any kind. Italicizing them was maybe a cowardly thing to do, a way of putting them at a distance, of maybe saying, “OK, these aren’t the way I normally write. Consumer, beware.”

And yes, a lot of the poems in the third section of Dead Cars In Managua were created the same way; they were written while other poems (primarily long poems by John Ashbery) were being read aloud.

As for the Punchy Writers Series, I’m not sure they have a reputation for anything yet, because there are only two books so far, and mine is the poetry book. I was very fortunate because, once again, a publisher agreed to feature the art of a friend of mine on the cover of my book, in this case my old high-school friend Howard Ross (no relation!). I love that painting by him, and it does have a revolutionary look, so it fits in nicely with the invocation of Managua, Nicaragua. The designer decided to use really nice paper inside so that my photos would reproduce well; I’m so grateful they went to that expense.

I didn’t intend to have a book out this year, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to publish with a Montreal press, but Jason Camlot, who edits Punchy Poetry, approached me shortly after we met about a year ago, and told me about this imprint he was launching through DC, and he said he wanted the first book to be by me. He felt that would make a strong statement.

I’m not immune to flattery, so I didn’t think long about it. I was very excited about being the flagship book for a new imprint, and I wanted to work with Jason, because he’s a great guy and a great poet, and I realized that publishing with a Montreal press might help me build audience in that city. I didn’t have a manuscript at hand, but I had a couple of unfinished projects – Dead Cars in Managua, the photo-and-prose-poem sequence, and Hospitality Suite, a collection of poems about hospitals. I decided to create a book that would really be three chapbooks bound into one cover. I rounded the projects off with poems I had written in recent years at the Poetry Boot Camps that I lead. At first, I thought of this as a collection of side projects, but, as I say in the introduction, I came to realize this was simply my next book. And yeah, it’d be very different from all the books that came before it. Which was exciting, because it’s risky to do something your audience wouldn’t expect, or maybe wouldn’t even want.

Anyway, it was a good gamble because the book looks good, and Jason was a brilliant and challenging editor of my poetry. And while all the editors I’ve worked with have been really committed to my work, I hadn’t had an experience quite like that before. I love that guy.

MONDO: How has your Poetry Boot Camp changed the work you write?

SR: I get my students to jump through all these insane hoops, writing poems often in crazy ways. I don’t necessarily write poems with all these methods myself, but I think everything is worth trying in the adventure of poetry. So gradually I’ve begun to write more and more poems in my own workshops, and now I’ve called my own bluff by publishing cut-ups and cross-outs and upside-down poems and translations naifs and so on. I never call them “exercises” in my Boot Camps, because exercises are something you do to practise; I want these to be thought of as real poems, so I call them “projects” or “strategies.” And I feel like now I’ve put my money where my mouth is. Well, there’s no money, of course, but I’ve put something where my mouth is. Ink, maybe.

MONDO: At the Punchy/Insomniac launch in Toronto, the crowd was vocal and enthusiastic during your reading. Afterwards I heard many people talking about the artwork – the cover as well as the photographs of the cars inside. How did you decide on your cover art, and can you give some of the back story about the cars?

SR: I think the crowd was also vocal because I had been threatened with a defamation suit by a couple of other poets who were there in the audience, and this was a show of support for me. I can’t believe these two had the gall to show up at my launch after they’d sent a lawyer after me to shut me up. And then this other lousy poet was there, too, who had equated me publicly with Holocaust deniers because I was, to quote his mangled miscommand of the English language, “wrapping myself around the flag of freedom of expression.” Well, sorry, chump, but it was an issue of freedom of expression. And given that most of my great uncles and aunts and cousins died in concentration camps, I took offense. And it’s just now occurred to me that this guy shares the same name as the moronic Nazi colonel in Hogan’s Heroes.

But OK, I’m glad you heard people enthusing about the cover and the photos. As I said, the cover was by Howard Ross, with whom I did a plasticine animation Super 8 film in high school called Tale of a Glorp. He’s a very adventurous visual artist and I love much of his stuff and I’m glad to have his art on my cover, just as I’m glad to have the work of Charles George, Lisa Kiss, John Ens, Dana Samuel, Mike Richardson, Karen Azoulay, Pam Stewart, and Gary Clement on various of my other covers. All really talented friends of mine.

The photos I took during trips to Nicaragua in 1989, 1990, and 1996. I’m not sure if they’re still there, but there were just all these cars lying in the streets and the fields and the playgrounds of Managua. There’d be this stripped-down car parked on a residential street and it would have a tree growing up through it, or it’d be shrouded in shrubbery. I started photographing them, just crappy photographs because I’m not much of a photographer. But I knew since 1990 I would one day do something called Dead Cars in Managua. I pulled a version of it together for a YYZ Gallery publication a few years ago, then reworked it for the book, made a version I’m pleased with.

MONDO: What are you working on now? Are you going to move back to fiction or non-fiction? Will there be a follow-up to Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer (more from the sub-TERRAIN columns)?

SR: The non-fiction is ongoing, what with my sub-TERRAIN column, Hunkamooga, which recently got some surprise praise on the New York Times blog. I’m collecting all those columns in a file, along with a few other personal essays and other non-fiction I’ve written, and I sure hope there’ll be a More Confessions someday. I think Anvil Press, my Vancouver publisher who’s also responsible for sub-TERRAIN, will be game.

The poetry is also ongoing, and the work I do in my Boot Camps has become central to my practice. But my next book, Buying Cigarettes for the Dog, which is coming out in 2009 with Melanie Little’s imprint, Freehand Books, out of Calgary, is a collection of short stories, my first in a dozen years. I really have to get to work on those: there’s a lot of rewriting and reshaping to do, and I want to round that book off with a few new stories that I haven’t even conceived of yet and won’t until I start writing their first sentences. I’m excited about working with Melanie: she a fantastic writer and a good friend and I just know she’s going to be a kick-ass editor.

There are also a couple of short novels burbling around: one that needs some surgery and another that needs to be written through to the end. I’m excited about those, too. They’re sort of about my parents. But they are also surreal and strange, and they have been very difficult to write. Again, there’s risk there for me, and that makes the experience valuable.

Stuart Ross is the poetry editor at Mansfield Press and the fiction and poetry editor at This Magazine, and has published lots of books, most recently Dead Cars in Managua (DC Books Punchy Writers Series, 2008), I Cut My Finger (Anvil Press, 2007), and the non-fiction collection of Hunkamooga columns, Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer (Anvil Press, 2005). He publishes Peter O’Toole, the only journal of one-line poems we know of. His popular Poetry Boot Camps are the place to be; contact Stuart for information on the next Boot Camp (August 17, 2008) at

The Pineapple Review: Choking ‘Bout My Education

Posted by art On June - 20 - 2008

The Pineapple Review

My Neck is Thinner Than A Hair

The Atlas Group and Walid Raad
FACT 2005, 226 pgs

By Carolyn Tripp

As unsettling as they are, photographs of devastation and violence are fairly commonplace. Come to think of it, so too are the debates concerning how familiar they’ve become in print and on television. Even so, the page after page of post car bomb photographs taken various media photographers makes for an intriguing non-flipbook of devastation in My Neck is Thinner Than a Hair by the Atlas Group and Walid Raad. This volume contains images exclusively from Lebanon’s civil war, dating between 1976 and 1991.

Like so many attacked hearts bursting from scores of aching chests, the engines have left their intended homes and are the only portions of the wreckages to remain intact when the carnage is over. Many of them are actually found several blocks away from the original explosion sites.

Question marks popped above my desk, however, when I considered the attempt in archiving something of this magnitude, not to mention gravitas. This is mainly due to the fact that attempts at documenting historical events often focus on narrative rather than accuracy. In either case, there is the perennial conundrum of portraying that which we know to have happened, and the point of view we wish our audience to absorb. The exclusivity of the project, i.e. car bombs, presents a problem when considering this dichotomy.

Much to the publication’s credit, the layout is fairly pragmatic, which certainly references what one might consider an “archive proper.” Still, design and layout, with scans of the envelopes in which the images were found, become more of a focus than what may be deemed necessary, at least as it concerns the realm of history. Thus, it introduces the potential for the photographs to overshadow the subjects they contain.

All of these qualms remained floating above my workspace until memory prompted a conversation that I had back in 1997 with a penpal from Buffalo. I chanced asking her which country she believed to have won the war of 1812. She insisted adamantly that it was the United States of America. Before she had even finished her sentence, I responded with the usual Canadian answer. Both of our contentions, lifted from textbooks in our respective countries, were inaccurate. This only serves me now as a mildly interesting anecdote, but is useful nonetheless. The general lack of truth nestled in our education (and in educational print) is at times like some kind of rank, gaseous fog, never entirely lifted from the time it’s set upon us at the age of five.

The debate rages on worse than your sister when you call her thighs tubby. Perhaps the enduring question of historical veracity in print can never be resolved, but the Atlas Group has accomplished a damned stylish task with this volume, even if it does bring forth musings about semantics, accuracies, and General Brock.

Like a catalogue of Twinkies after the apocalypse, these car engines are grim and repetitive objects, but never ad nauseum. They manage, and quite compellingly so, to contribute new dimensions to the already convoluted task of portraying the not-so-civil.

Rainy Days and Foggy Mirrors

Posted by art On May - 20 - 2008

the end of east by Jen Sookfong Lee
Knopf Canada, 2007

By Kendall Malchuk

the end of east is, at face value, a novel about a Chinese immigrant family living in Vancouver. However, the novel is as complex as the city itself: tall and distinct, but surrounded by an ever-present fog of dreams unrealized.

This first novel by Jen Sookfong Lee follows the rise and fall of one family’s aspirations and desires as promised by the “new world” of Canada from the 1910s to present day. For readers in an overcrowded, overly stimulated cluster-fuck of a culture like that of Toronto, this book is highly accessible. It contains spiritualism, family ties, sexual desires, Canadian history, teenage angst, middle-aged angst, identity crises, and enough rain to fill Godzilla’s water dish.

The novel follows the story of Sammy, a twenty-ish, tomboy-ish Chinese college dropout. The novel simultaneously explores the lives of her grandfather and father, now both dead, and their separate arrivals at, and subsequent lives lived in, Vancouver. As Sammy discovers treasured keepsakes from both men while cleaning out their previously occupied spaces, she surfs a wave of recollection, landing her on the beach of re-discovering her family roots. Meanwhile, the reader is treated to flashbacks encompassing the greater part of Sammy’s mother’s, father’s, grandmother’s, and grandfather’s lives. Each character’s story really begins, in this book, the second that it washes up on the garbage-strewn beaches of Vancouver.

As the larger portion of this melting-pot we call a country immigrated here or is descended from people who did, this book holds a mirror up to experiences held within our own families (even though it may be a foggy and cracked mirror). This is no rose-coloured story. the end of east is a dark and nostalgic book that unapologetically reveals every character at their weakest points. In lives moved by arranged marriages, debt-strewn families left in China, bigoted neighbours slinging insults and the occasional brick, hidden dreams, strong senses of duty, and, above all, an unbreakable dedication to family despite the anxiety it causes, there are many dark corners for secrets to hide. Although many of the events in this story are incredibly sombre and sometimes frightening, there are beautiful, delicate moments as well, recounted with lyrical elegance.

The style of Jen Sookfong Lee’s writing is delectable. Flip-flopping from poetic metaphors to blunt truths to polite dialogue to unabashed swearing, the writing is as complex as the chronology. For this novel I’d recommend a steaming cup of tea, a rainy day, and a very comfortable chair, because once you sit down to read this book you probably won’t get up until it’s over.

Hannus by Rachel Lebowitz
Pedlar Press, 2007

By Evie Christie

Pedlar Press is a Toronto press famous for its award-winning books and cover designs. Beth Follett, novelist and Pedlar publisher and editor, has (single-handedly) put out excellent poetry and fiction since 1997, making a big name for the small press. A recent Pedlar book worth notice is Rachel Lebowitz’s Hannus, the poetic biography of Ida Hannus, a Finnish-Canadian suffragist living in Vancouver and in the B.C. Finnish commune Sointula, from the turn of the 20th century to the Cold War. The Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize jury took notice as Lebowitz was shortlisted in 2007 for her debut collection.

After I’d read some of Lebowitz’s industrialist poems in Event Magazine, I ordered my copy of Hannus (another really bloody good-looking book by Pedlar). Not having read the “creative biography” genre, my expectations were narrow: a book about a Canadian, a suffragette, and a socialist has to be politically minded, not to mention the familial connection to the subject.

I have to stand by my opinion that political (even if it is gorgeously left-wing and feminist) poetic works can be appallingly ineffectual and are occasionally barely more than poorly rendered stabs at a highly dogmatic, semi-constructed manifesto.

Luckily for the reader, Lebowitz gets it. She negotiates the subject matter poetically rather than politically or personally. There is, thankfully, no ranting. Instead the work mirrors the unconventional life of the subject; there is a fragmented, chaotic quality to the text, which includes photographs, poems, prose, and historical marginalia. In keeping with the times, there’s a dark and gritty component, including obits and passages such as this:

There’s water—and wind, smacking salt
Onto her face;
Ragged clouds like birds
With wings torn off,
And the deck,
Smudged with dirt.
(p. 22)

A nice, finely wrought passage with tough, boiled-down language rather than the lofty prosaic verse which is sometimes used, perplexingly, when handling Canadian historical (often female) figures. That is not to say that there are not instances of lackadaisical language that reads more like historical information, but Hannus remains interesting even in its less successful poetic moments. I recommend seeking it out and reading for yourself.

The Pineapple Review

Every week, we highlight the best in art-ish printed matter. Pretty much anything on book or in paper is fine and juicy by us. And difficult to eat. But oh, so tasty.

The Book of Shrigley by David Shrigley

Chronicle Books

By Carolyn Tripp

The sentiment resulting from observing artist neurosis can be more a strange mixture of vexation than the oft-supposed fascination. Beyond any interesting work and existential conundrums, I don’t think I could suffer through the conversation offered by somebody whose presence isn’t half as enthralling as his work.

And what would be the point of inviting him to a dinner party, anyway? He’d just stand around and mope in the corner, eh? Most likely running to the bathroom half-way through the evening to polish off a few lines off the back of your toilet in hopes of having something “deep” to say ten minutes post. On the whole, there are plenty dinner companions and talent, but seldom both. All that baking of bread and the fish was a gigantic waste of time. If this has ever happened to you, it’s okay. You did your best. Everyone makes a blunder or two along the Path of Attempted Culture.

I have no idea about David Shrigley’s level of substance abuse, but between his animation and the Book of Shrigley, and additionally in spite of myself, your best bet for entertaining dinner conversation would probably be on him.

This artist is a thief in the best kind of way, and a keen observer of his friends, pets, family and of course, complete strangers. I understand using possessives may not always mean the artist is talking about themselves, but here I would almost prefer it if he was. One piece entitled, Me Doing This from 2000 sees a crude portrait of the artist doing exactly what surrounds his likeness: drawing a bunch of circles. And that’s all.

In addition to page-upon-page of works on paper, shots of his studio are also featured where work becomes rather (or, even more) accidental in nature. For another reason to invite him over for wine and cheese and biscuits, please refer to his huge five-gallon paint bucket on page 32 marked “Anti-Depressants.” Perhaps it’s the paint itself that makes the artist happy, or maybe there are a bunch of pills therein. I don’t know. I’m not a doctor. Though, the dilemma he presents achieves humour and intrigue, so much so that after laughing out loud, I check myself and immediately feel ashamed for reading too much into it.

Another giggle-inducing facet lies within his blunt cultural distinction. One could definitely insert a thick accent onto every page, at least where British colloquialisms are featured. My personal favourite proclaims, “We went on holiday to Italy/It was shite/The plane crashed/And we all got killed” taken from We Went On Holiday To Italy (pg 80).

So you know, in a way this bundle of goodness is no more confusing than those other good books your parents tried to raise you on. It might be time to give the others a rest and tend to the newest version of the gospel. Whatever you interpret that to be, I’m sure you’ll find some guidance here worthy of a few existential ponderings (and yes, more damn fine discussion over pinot and seasoned halibut).

Size Matters: Striking Images reviewed *UPDATED*

Posted by art On April - 22 - 2008

Striking Images: Vintage Matchbook Cover Art

Edited and designed by Monte Beauchamp
Chronicle Books, 272 pgs

By Carolyn Tripp

Gone are the days where you would saunter into a crowded local on Friday, choke a little on the peanut-butter fog, and order a drink from your favourite barkeep. This particular drink slinger also had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth (both disillusioned and care-worn!). The most important thing to note here, however, is certainly the cigarette.

As bans were imposed and the smoke started to lift in bars and pubs across many a North American city, matchbooks from those venues started to disappear. Businesses interested in other forms of advertising ceased to produce them, and in so doing, the general public lost a wealth of miniature creativity, one square inch at a time.

Despite infrequent appearances under the public eye, these tiny wonders are still being produced. But editor and designer Monte Beauchamp figured he’d waste no time making certain that the classic babies weren’t thrown out with the bath water.

Striking Images is a fat little number jammed with a bit of text and a lot of colour prints dating from war-time adverts to the jazz and skin bars of the 50’s and 60’s. Increasing its value exponentially is the amount of political incorrectness one can find in its covers.

For example, do you remember that part in Ghostworld where Enid brings that Coon Chicken poster to art class in all of its unapologetic and terribly offensive wonder? Well, Beauchamp has managed to include a matchbook from the days where people thought blackface was downright hilarious. Graham and Bur must be turning in their graves at the thought logos from their beloved restaurant chain being exemplary of the worst kind of passive-aggressive racial prejudice.

Striking Images also includes government-issued warnings about venereal disease, typically directed at touring American troops. As if that weren’t enough for a chuckle, there are wonderful examples included of ladies trolling for some sweet uniformed action. While I’m certain the United States government wasn’t too far off the mark about the goings-on of Fleet Week, it’s interesting to note the insistence of the supposed aggressor. Who knew such tiny bits of cardboard could be such effective cultural barometers? Posterity-wise, anyway.

Apart from the political and offensive, there are also quite a few treats on the purely illustrative side of the matchbook coin, including covers from Pennzoil and the Canadian National Railway. If you’re a fan of cute topless girls (however small) they’re here as well with discretely placed flowers and palm leaves for your enjoyment.

Beauchamp has very much proven his collecting chops outside of his typically exemplary BLAB! duties. This is definitely something that should find a place on your bookshelf, even if you’re not that into smoky pub nostalgia.

Many An Idle, Many An Odd

Posted by art On April - 15 - 2008

Hand JobA Review of Hand Job: A Catalogue of Type

By Carolyn Tripp

As grin-inducing as the title may be, this book isn’t something you can brag to your buds about getting from your significant (or non-significant) other last night. This impressively big (size counts!) catalogue boasts editor and text artist Michael Perry’s devotion to type over the past few years. And I must admit, I’ve fallen asleep with this book close by ever since it fell into my lap from the postman’s satchel. But you know, it’s not what you think. I’m an above-the-waist type, anyhow.

With its focus exclusive to hand-drawn type and typography, this contemporary collection is a feast-and-a-half for even the mild text buff. Including everyone under the PC916 Canary Yellow sun, Hand Job features work from Andy Beach (designer for Urban Outfitters) to Michel Gondry (wacky/French/filmmaker) to those still penning posters for one-off film festivals in the Midwest.

Balanced with sketchbook pages and concert posters, the volume also speaks to the popularity of hand-drawn anything in this decade. The past eight years have seen a distinct resurgence in the personal, imperfect touch. This humble bumble took one look through the pages and was met with an instant wrench in her heart. The detail alone is enough to have your nose glued to all 256 pages for hours.

Hand JobAdditionally, the figurative typefaces from the likes of Andy Smith and Jim the Illustrator (Stoten) stand out as the more intriguing ways of employing text as art. Smith’s “Alphabet of Mishaps” documents train wrecks, suicides, meteors, and the uncomfortable feeling of being chewed on by a large reptile at your midsection. Stoten keeps it tight with his under-the-creepy-sea alphabet and my personal favourite, Blob, which is a very nice green and perhaps needs no additional adjectives save that the line quality makes me tear up like I’m watching In Bruges in its surprisingly touching moments.

While Hand Job sticks strictly to artist bios and visuals as they relate to hand-drawn type and contemporary design, the increase in sentimental-yet-cool branding over the past few years, and most notably in this decade, is something that’s never touched upon. Fortunately, this resurgence has translated into a gratifying and sophisticated visual vocabulary for everyone to enjoy.

It still may be worth considering, however, the collective concession that decently paid gigs generally stem from large, corporate sources. As artists and spectators, we don’t seem to fight it as much as we used to, perhaps pointing to a better understanding of the process by which artistic endeavors have historically reached the general public. That is to say, the bigger the client, the more people are going to see it. I haven’t heard the term “sellout” in quite some time, have you? Let’s keep it that way.

Entirely engrossing, this book will most likely gratify anyone who ever wanted to highlight all and hit “Wingdings” when handing in an essay for grade twelve English. You know, the one for the humourless instructor with a Wilfred Brimley moustache, waist at his toes, and Jack on his breath? You know you wanted to. I’m sure Perry would still give you five bucks had you actually done it.

The Books of Standard Form

Posted by admin On December - 11 - 2007

I got an A+ in Art and You can too and A Report/Un Rapport

By Katie Edwards

“Intueri sonitum, imaginem auscultare.”

With a Latin motto that roughly translates as “looking at sound, listening to an image,” Toronto-based press Standard Form produces a unique combination of art and music. Inspired by publishers like Coach House Books, who do their printing in-house, proprietor Alex Durlak founded the company almost a year and a half ago, motivated by a self-proclaimed “love to make stuff.” With a long-standing interest in design and photography, lots of time spent playing in bands, and a DIY work-ethic, Durlak began to learn the art of offset lithography two years ago. This has translated into a catalogue of two albums and three books, all published within the last six months. Though the albums were released before the books, Durlak says that he always intended to publish both books and music, and is interested in the overlap between the art and music scenes.

The press’ books are striking in their design, which is likely a result of Durlak’s fascination with graphic arts and typography. His introduction to Constructivist books published in Russia had a major impact: “I was impressed by the power simple type and vibrant graphical layouts can have as both a means of communication and as artistic expression,” Durlak says. “They seemed to have the perfect balance.”

As the press prepares to expand and move into its own shop in Toronto’s west-end, Durlak has lots to be excited about. With upcoming albums by Feuermusik and Greater Explosives, and books by Seripop and Chad VanGaalen, Standard Press will continue to create an interesting mix of sound and image.

I got an A+ in Art and You can too.
By Tonik Wojtyra

Tonik Wojtyra’s cheeky handbook, I got an A+ in Art and You can too., reveals the secret of how to navigate the sometimes conflicted world of art and higher education. Beginning by answering the questions “What is higher learning?” and “What is art?”, Wojtyra offers advice on everything from how to survive a critique of your work to how to get that A+. He distinguishes good art from good grades; if students want the latter, they are advised to “Give them what they want.” If your teacher likes more traditional painting, don’t hand in an avant-garde piece. It’s that simple.

Wojtyra designed the book’s striking layout himself and, according to Standard Form’s Alex Durlak, had a clear idea of what the finished product would look like from the start. The text is punctuated with a rich yellow type treatment that is carried throughout the book. Photos and sketches add visual interest to the text, making the book an art project in and of itself.

A Report/Un Rapport
By Alex Durlak

Alex Durlak’s A Report/Un Rapport takes the text of a 1978 report written by the Advisory Arts Panel to the Canada Council and presents it in a graphically interesting form. The 7 x 7-inch book takes the text of the report and lays out no more than a few sentences per page. Colour and typography are used to emphasize the meanings of the words they represent, and reflect Durlak’s interest in graphic design as a means of both communication and artistic expression. For example, the word “self-destruction” appears in a jumble on one page, and the phrase “American giant” fills a page about the pressures facing Canadian culture and heritage. The book has two front covers, and depending on which one is opened the reader will encounter the report’s text in either French or English. The layout and design of the two versions mirror each other, and the same colours and graphics are used in both. Simple yet striking, A Report/Un Rapport reinvents a thirty-year-old text, and challenges ideas about Canadian art and culture.

Standard Form books are available at: Art Metropole; Pages, Swipe; This Ain’t the Rosedale Library; David Mirvish Books; Printed Matter (New York City); Barbara Wien (Berlin); and by mail order from



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